Blog – AirTags as strong signals for the physical operating system

This post is a monthly update that I have sent to all subscribers of the Cities of Things newsletter.

I think I cannot avoid talking about the launch of Apple’s AirTags. I ordered a set but they will not arrive before half of May I think. But that does not matter, the actual experience of using them is not the key point I want to address here. The basic premise of having a tag connected to a valuable object is not so exciting and definitely not new; my tile is still in my bag, just in case. The battery is worn out I think and with the first edition I have, you cannot charge it or replace it. A bad design choice they recognized themselves in the second generation.

I also don’t want to dive into the use cases of these kind of tags. The tile has never functioned as it was meant, I never lost my bag out of sight. I understand of course that the point of this kind of tags is not about using them all the time, but more to use them just in case of emergency. Or not emergency but at least in case of exception. It is more an insurance, a feeling of security. As the bikehunters of VanMoof are. It is a promise they sell, a rest of heart. That is of course the marketing narrative of the AirTags too now. I might use them again in that way; adding one to my bag, and another to my car in case I forgot where I parked it. Or my bike as I dare to risk the 30 euros. I am sure I come up with more creative uses.

And that is a segue into the more interesting part of this product launch imho. It is unlocking the acceptance of having everyday objects forming a part of the physical operating system we will live in. That is a leap I understand, but it is part of incremental changes we all have been following as we are following the developments of the internet of things. And especially if you like to value the internet of things as a network of connected objects that make sense and value by being connected to each other, opposing the other ‘school’ of IoT that deals with connected objects as remote-controlled devices (like every new car has an app now, or a light, or a domestic appliance).

I have always been a ‘follower’ of this networked objects paradigm in finding IoT an interesting domain. Rob van Kranenburg has been one of the front runners here with his publications on RFID back in the days, translating that to examples of contextual-based value. Follow his current thinking and publications on the next level consequences: the SSI, self-sovereign identities, and the very interesting notion of disposable identities.

The matter of identity is a key component of the AirTags too of course. It is connected to the Apple ecosystem and is using the Find my-infrastructure and the U1 chip (see good analysis in this Wired article), which is based on identity from the ground up you could say. It is not a disposable identity and definitely not SSI, as it is controlled and locked into the propriety Apple ecosystem. How trustable and privacy-focused that might be, as we believe Apple’s promises (relatively to other players of course it is, but it remains a locked-in concept).

What is the (hidden) power of the introduction of AirTags is the establishing of the physical operating system as mentioned above. It might introduce a trusted architecture and infrastructure that people will start to use to connect objects bottom-up to that network (or should I say platform). It is not about these objects that people will connect, it is all about the ‘getting-used-to’-factor of having everything possibly connected to the network. And the network will become a platform for new services, for new applications using these objects easy peasy, with a nice revenue model for Apple of course. Not only Apple is in this game of course.

That is only the midterm play. The long-term play will move toward the operating system of the physical world. And that is where there is an interesting connection with Cities of Things-notion. Back in 2017, I took the introduction of the AirPods as a weak signal for the transposing towards an edge-based ecosystem-product design. Edge computing as part of networked objects becomes extra relevant when these objects will become intelligent. More intelligent even than the optimized product functions of AirPods or HomePods and all others adapting embedded software. Really intelligent to be able to become a partner from us (co-performing), and in, or having conversations with us humans based on predictive knowledge. In a bachelor project, eight student teams developed concepts around that notion (see this post) and delivered some interesting starting points for concepts that become easier to realize with AirTags 2.0. The food-sharing Tupperware containers, the conversations with plants of the community garden, etc.

The introduction of a physical translation of the purely digital service Spotify in the form of the Car Thing is something that can be seen as part of the same development; now it is ‘only’ physical remote control of the digital service, but it might accelerate physical representations of more intelligent interactions that are already baked in the music service.

It is the key of the Cities of Things thinking that objects in the city become part of the city as citizens we can have a kind of equal conversations with. The social contracts we have with these new operating systems might be crucial in the way cities and citizens will relate to corporate players like Apple.